Blaming women's workplace woes on ... women

Theorists and self-help gurus say women suck at financial planning, choosing a nice sangiovese and boosting morale.

Published September 28, 2006 7:08PM (EDT)

Warning: Reading too many women-in-the-workplace stories, how-to books and research studies in rapid succession is likely to send the female brain into overdrive or underdrive or simply off in search of a sunset. At least, mine began behaving badly upon consuming Wednesday's veritable breeding ground of theories.

The first flew in from Auckland's Stuff, with research showing that women breed discontent in the workplace because of their "misery loves company" bonding style. (Kind of a shocker from New Zealand, seeing as how the country's past two prime ministers were women.)

"Men usually bond when things are going well, whereas for women it's almost the opposite," said Auckland University of Technology psychologist Rachel Morrison, who works in organizational psychology at the business school. "Women actively go out and seek friendships when they're stressed and experiencing drama. They're probably more likely to tell others of their discontent, because they're motivated to get support by disclosing what's going on." So now we have scientific proof: Women are black clouds over the water cooler. Gosh honey, who funded your research grant -- Wal-Mart?

But actually, Morrison's research may indeed cast light on one of those invisible force fields that distinguish female and male workplace experiences. Women's inclination to bond over bad experiences may foment workplace negativity, but couldn't this be a classic case of blaming the messenger? Couldn't it be that women are sharing bad workplace experiences (and use commiseration as a survival strategy) because they have, well, a hell of a lot more of them to share?

Or maybe that's just my inner naysayer! A lesson from "Today" show financial advisor Jean Chatzky on why women are not richer only poured more fuel on the ire. In this excerpt from her book "Make Money, Not Excuses" (could there be a title more annoying?), Chatzky rebukes women for the great female crime of our time: self-sabotage. "The reason most women aren't richer -- and the reason you aren't as rich as you'd like to be -- is that you can't get out of your own way. That's right, you are a big part of the problem ... You have a million excuses that prevent you from earning as much as you'd like, saving as much as you'd like, keeping as much as you'd like for the future."

She goes on to list all the ways women make excuses for remaining financially ignorant and irresponsible. All of them are, no doubt, sometimes true, both of many men and of many more women. But like so many self-help writers, Chatzky speaks from her upper-middle-class pond, citing the struggles of children's summer camp bills or eating out several times a week as if her personal trials as a network financial advisor can speak directly to the working-class woman with two jobs and two kids and no 401K in her future.

And Chatzky is only the latest in a female-targeted self-help industry that only grows more specialized by the hour. Another guru seeking to help her sisters in need has made it her mission to initiate women in one of the most ancient of status games: wine tasting. Featured in the Chicago Sun-Times, 29-year-old sommelier and author Alpana Singh is "troubled when executive-suite women [can't] intelligently choose between a Sangiovese and a Syrah." But her favored wine terminology doesn't seem very inclusive. When pushing her product, Singh uses language that associates wine with women or lingerie: "If I said that a wine is soft, silky, well-endowed, voluptuous, and that if you give it time it will open up, men seemed to get into it," she told the Sun-Times. "What can I say?"

As an abashed wine ignoramus married to another, I found this idea of seducing or negotiating via elaborate discussions of mashed-up grapes pretty amusing ... but what do I know? I'm working from home.

Which brings me to the final study, which offers both a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how many women are dealing with workplace misery and one good reason why they aren't getting richer. A recently released government study found that most women-owned businesses (in contrast to their male-owned counterparts) are based out of the home, Reuters reported Wednesday.

Indeed, the home-based business is a way of looking like you're a slacker while still working your ass off. Downscaling the concept of the '90s power femme who wants to "have it all," today's women seem to have a little less: less money, less prestige but also less dedicated time with kids than the typical stay-at-home mom.

Have these women finally found the perfect work-family balance? Not necessarily. Home-based businesses may serve as fallbacks for many women, but these businesses also tend to be less financially stable than other businesses and are less likely to be taken seriously. As Kathleen Christensen, director of the Workplace, Workforce and Working Families program at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York, told Reuters: "It's really an untapped labor pool for many American employers, because many of these women would, in fact, be in the labor pool for hiring if, in fact, there was more flexibility that would allow them to pursue their careers in a challenging way but also have a satisfying family life."

But perhaps that's just a lot of excuses. Perhaps what women really need is an attitude adjustment, some lessons in male bonding and a glass of voluptuous pinot noir. Make that a bottle.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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